At midnight on February 12, 2021, I sat in the twin bed of my childhood bedroom with the lights turned off and my headphones on. Like so many twenty-somethings who became unemployed or underemployed due to the pandemic, I’d unexpectedly moved home with my parents. Suddenly, my life was pervaded with an eerie sense of déjà vu, as I was once again living in a space that had held so much adolescent angst. Sitting in my too-small bed, I pressed “play” on my phone, and a familiar swell of fiddle filled my ears, transporting me back to middle school.
Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” is a song that, on paper, should elicit little more than an eye-roll from me. I don’t believe in love at first sight. I’m not much of a wedding person. Honestly, I go back and forth on whether I believe in marriage at all. But Taylor’s music has always melted away my defenses, and I have to admire the sheer gall of a teenage girl who rewrote Shakespeare’s most famous play in order to “fix” the ending. When the key change in the song’s bridge corresponds with Romeo’s triumphant proposal to Juliet, I can’t help but smile.
I first found this song when I was in eighth grade. The whimsical escapism of Taylor’s early music provided a respite from the din of slamming locker doors and lonely lunch tables. Now, in 2021, the song offers a reprieve from the endless slog of pandemic boredom that’s settled like a fog over my body. There are few things 13-year-old me and 25-year-old me can agree on, but one of them is Taylor Swift.
“Love Story” is the first of more than a hundred songs that Taylor will be re-recording and releasing in the near future, as part of her endeavor to finally own the master recordings of her first six albums. While listening to the 2021 version of “Love Story,” I am struck by how much time has passed since the last time this song was new. When Taylor released this single in 2008, Obama had not been elected president yet. I didn’t know anyone who owned an iPhone. Nobody’s parents were on Facebook. And our country was careening on the edge of what we believed would be a “once-in-a-lifetime” economic crisis.
What I find most remarkable about Taylor’s endeavor to re-record her old music is not the financial risk, nor the sheer amount of work involved, but the bravery of confronting something she wrote as a teenager. I have entire journals from my teenage years in a dusty box under my bed that I can neither throw away nor make myself read. At the beginning of the pandemic, I tried to read them but had to stop after just a few pages. I don’t want to be reminded of the naïve, sweet, and self-loathing girl I used to be.
Now, as a professional writer whose work lives forever on the internet, I still have a hard time reading my own publications, even though I am proud of them. I love to write, but I regard my own writing as perpetually imperfect. And I’m not alone in this feeling. I’ve talked to many writers who expect to feel elated on their books’ publication dates but instead just feel a nagging unease. It’s uncomfortable to share your interiority with the world. That Taylor can listen to something she composed at 14 years old and hear something to be celebrated, rather than just something to be shoved underneath a bed, is astonishing to me.
One of Taylor’s earliest hits, and the first song of hers that I ever heard, was “Teardrops on my Guitar.” Its lyrics immediately caught my attention because, as a 13-year-old girl, it sounded like the kind of song I might’ve written if I knew how to write a song. While my iPod was full of young artists singing about youth, they were written with the help of adults who didn’t know what they were talking about. But in “Teardrops on my Guitar,” the specificity of mentioning a crush by his name (“Drew”) made Taylor seem like a real teenager. Her vocals sounded like a whispered confession, like something you might sing to yourself after everyone else in your house had gone to sleep. In 2007, I listened to the song every day on the bus ride home from school.
Conventional wisdom about Taylor Swift’s popularity relies on the idea that teenage girls and young women find her music “relatable.” That is, Taylor writes convincingly in the first person about the kinds of crushes and heartbreaks that most of us, as young women, have experienced. But personally, I’ve always found this interpretation of her success to be reductive. First, it assumes all of Taylor’s fans are young women, which isn’t the case. And while I agree that Taylor Swift is an accessible and warm persona, I have never encountered a Taylor Swift album that told the story of my life. Where her music is cinematic, my life is ordinary. Where her music is euphoric, my life has been blessedly pedestrian. I was a melancholy and cautious teenager and have grown into a slightly less melancholy and slightly more cautious adult. I’ve never danced in the rain in my best dress. I’ve done very few activities in the rain, actually, and none of them have been worth memorializing in song. I listened to Taylor’s early albums the way you listen to stories from an older, wiser cousin, who gives you an imagined adulthood you can project yourself into. I heard songs like “Enchanted” and wondered if I’d ever experience a five-minute window in which I felt that many sincere emotions at once.
Taylor’s career has largely been built on confessional writing. This endeared her to a loyal fan base, but also meant many people dismissed her songs because she “only wrote about boys” — a critique that ignores that basically, the entire canon of pop music is also about romantic love. Additionally, this criticism of her music strikes me as particularly facile because it assumes that love — and the ways in which we, as humans, give and withhold it — is not interesting, complicated, or deserving of being written about. Even if it were true that Taylor’s entire catalog was about love, what would be wrong with that?
The answer, I think, has much to do with age and gender. Taylor herself has commented in interviews that her male peers do not get the same scrutiny for writing about their exes. When men write about their romantic experiences, it is art. When Taylor does the same thing, it often framed as gossipy, pathetic, or even vindicative. Additionally, our society views teenage girls largely as a monolithic market to sell products to, rather than as individual human beings with distinct thoughts, experiences, and beliefs. In a culture that treats teenage girls as punchlines, and their pain as insignificant, Taylor Swift dared to do something remarkable. She was not embarrassed by her feelings. She wrote them down, put them to music, rehearsed dance numbers to them, and then traveled with them across countries and continents. I don’t mean to imply that she is the first woman to have done this; I know she is not. I don’t mean to imply that she has done this better than other woman performers. All I can say is that she was a young woman doing this while I was a young woman not doing it. And for that reason, I found her fascinating.
Red came out my senior year of high school, and it was Taylor’s most sonically eclectic album to date, borrowing sounds from country, folk, and pop. At 17 years old, I was in the process of applying to colleges and figuring out who I might be outside my hometown. For an introverted and anxious person like myself, it was a daunting project. I felt an enormous pressure to define myself in neat terms — in college essays, in conversations with friends, and at the university that I was supposed to pick as a second “home.” The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to be a writer. But this desire felt so absurd I couldn’t even say it out loud. I had no idea how one became a writer. All around me, classmates were finding careers and new cities to inhabit. I felt the familiar dread of imposter syndrome, as everyone except me had real plans and ambitions to pursue.
But listening to Red reminded me that “the self” was fungible. Taylor described identity as something that could be lost in a breakup (“All Too Well”) and found again in its ashes (“Begin Again”). The self was multifaceted — goofy with friends (“22”), then brooding when alone (“I Almost Do”). During a time in my life when I felt expected to shape myself into something hard-edged and distinct, Red reminded me that identity is as blurry as a genre category. It is a mold the outside world demands you fit into. But you can always write your way out of it.
Taylor Swift is famous for reinventing herself. She’s explained that woman artists have to reinvent themselves constantly, or they are “out of a job.” Her albums represent distinct “eras,” in which she not only experiments musically, but also aesthetically with new color palettes, fashion choices, and haircuts. For more than a decade, Taylor has (mostly) successfully walked the tightrope of reinventing herself without alienating her fans. In a 2019 interview with Vogue, Taylor compares her music to a house. She explains, “I never wanted to tear down my house. Because I built this house. This house being, metaphorically, my body of work, my songwriting, my music, my catalog, my library. I just wanted to redecorate.”
I interpret her desire to re-record her earlier music as a restoration project. She is polishing the hardwoods and restoring the wallpaper of her earlier songs, not because she wants to revise them, but because she wants them to survive. And she does not trust them to survive in anyone else’s care but her own. Taylor Swift has tried many times to buy the original master recordings of her early albums, but she has always been denied by her record label or the men who own her work. If she wants to decide when her songs get licensed, sampled, or performed live, then she will need to fully own the rights to them herself. And her only option for achieving this is to re-record them from scratch.
From a career perspective, this restoration project couldn’t have come at a better time. In 2020, Taylor released two of the most critically acclaimed albums of her career, folklore and evermore. Her departure from first-person, autobiographical songwriting finally saw her taken seriously by what I like to refer to as the “Pitchfork demographic” — that is, music fans for whom the perceived “coolness” or obscurity of an artist is important. After folklore and evermore were released, I received many texts from people who’d previously cringed at my interest in Taylor’s music. They admitted, somewhat begrudgingly, that these new albums were “really good.” I have mixed feelings about their praise. While I agree that these are among the best albums of Taylor’s career, I also find it frustrating that she had to go acoustic and collaborate with a dad band like The National in order for people to finally pay attention to her storytelling.
Taylor Swift has never been “cool.” She knows this. Her lack of coolness probably transpires, at least partially, from the fact that many of her fans are girls and young women, a demographic that society tends to regard as embarrassing. But I think more than that, Taylor’s lack of coolness comes from her earnestness. At the beginning of her career, she was often mocked for her “surprised face,” the gaped-mouth expression she wore every time she won an award. And in her songs, especially her early songs, she is unabashed in her feelings. She takes everything devastatingly seriously.
And her orientation towards seriousness undergirds her entire ethos as a writer and businesswoman. Taylor believes in the value of her own art, even when those around her try to diminish it. It was this stubborn belief that convinced her family to move to Nashville for the career of a middle school girl. It was this stubborn belief that caused her to insist she write all the songs on her debut album, despite the fact that she was only 16 years old. It was this stubborn belief that pushed her to continue to write about love and heartbreak, despite the relentless mockery these songs provoked in the media.
Even though she is one of the most popular songwriters of her generation, she has historically been regarded by the general public as more of a tabloid celebrity than a genuine artist. It remains baffling to me that 15 years into her career, there has been no book-length, comprehensive analysis of her work. For years, her dating life was one of the most common punchlines featured in awards shows and late-night monologues, while very little attention was given to her songwriting talents. I have lost count of the number of times people have confessed to me that they “like Taylor Swift’s music,” but immediately follow it up with “but I don’t like her.” I’m not interested in dissecting what it is about her that is so “unlikeable” to so many people. Obviously, sexism is an important factor in people’s perception of her, but this observation is so obvious that it’s hardly deserving of further discussion.
I don’t mean to suggest that Taylor Swift is an underdog. She is a thin and conventionally attractive white woman from a wealthy family. While it is true that she has been the subject of intense tabloid and Twitter scrutiny, it is also true that the music industry loves her. The Grammy’s, an institution that notoriously privileges work by white artists, has given Taylor Swift more trophies than she can carry.
I can agree that Taylor, like most people, is imperfect. For the majority of her career, she has been publicly apolitical, a decision I find cowardly. Her “girl power” brand of feminism is often cringey, and sometimes more harmful than helpful. She has made choices that I cannot, and will not, defend (e.g., failing to endorse a presidential candidate in 2016).
But the truth is, I never loved Taylor Swift because of her celebrity or public persona. I loved Taylor because of her writing. I still do.
As a writer, I’ve often struggled with what seems to come so easily to Taylor. Until recently, I’ve had trouble writing about myself, and have questioned the value of describing my own experiences. I know at least some of my difficulty is because I’m a young woman in a culture that still believes most young women should be seen and not heard. I also struggle with imposter syndrome, which is compounded by the fact that I live with invisible disabilities. I have several chronic conditions, including hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which causes frequent dislocations and subluxations of my joints, resulting in chronic pain. When I received this diagnosis at 24 years old, it was both clarifying and devastating. I discovered that my body failed to do the simplest tasks correctly (walking, sitting, even breathing). In a strange way, this discovery confirmed my worst fear about myself: everyone else is a real person, and I’m just pretending.
But if there is one thing I’ve learned from Taylor Swift’s career, it is to just keep writing. People tell you you’re too young and that no one would buy what you have to say? Keep writing. People belittle the significance of your work? Keep writing. A global pandemic upends everything about your life? Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.
Writing is a way to make myself and my experiences real. It is a way to exert some small measure of control over a world and a body that perplexes me. One of my favorite recent Taylor Swift songs is “evermore.” The song is guided by a repetitive and simple piano part, which is mirrored by Taylor’s cold and lonely vocals, as she sings about the dreariness of the past year and the gray nothingness of winter. The first time I heard this song, I was sitting on my bedroom floor in my childhood home, a house I never expected to live in again. Ambulance sirens sliced through dark, short days. Like Taylor, I felt exhausted, free-floating, barely there. In her voice I heard a familiar desperation: here was a woman grasping for meaning in a world that was ugly with emptiness.
This past year, we’ve all had to reckon with a government that’s been okay with leaving most of us for dead. As a disabled person who’s consistently heard the (incorrect) refrain that COVID-19 “is only dangerous to the disabled, overweight, and elderly,” I’ve realized how many people, including people I once regarded as friends, seem to view the loss of certain lives as tolerable, even necessary. Racism, exploitation, and unabashed cruelty have continued to reign as this country’s guiding principles.
For me, writing has become a way to counteract this cruelty and to refuse silence. I document my loneliness, my confusion, my all-consuming rage. I describe what it’s like to live inside a body that requires constant medical maintenance in a world in which obtaining that maintenance is dangerous and expensive. I write about imagined futures without state violence and private insurance companies and borders. I write because I don’t know what else to do.
While the prolific body of work Taylor Swift has created during the pandemic is indeed remarkable, it doesn’t exactly astonish me. I understand her compulsion to create. I understand the fear that if you don’t write, you might cease to exist.
I’m looking forward to the re-releases of Taylor’s early work. Perhaps this sounds silly. After all, I’ve already heard her songs thousands of times. And yet, there is something moving, and profoundly comforting, about Taylor’s embrace of all of her selves. She wants to own all of it — every last guitar riff and kiss-off. Perhaps owning her work is particularly important to her because so much else about her (her name, her appearance, her personal life) feels like it is in the public domain.
I hope that in 15 years, I am able to look upon my work with a similar generosity. As someone who often also feels disassociated from my physical self, my writing is the only part of me that feels truly, deeply mine. For all its faults, I’d like to claim it. •